Japanese festivals are held year-round, with the Gion Festival, Tenjin Matsuri, and Kanda Festival in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, respectively, being the three most notable.
At Japanese festivals, you'll find yattai - small food stalls that serve up a variety of tasty street food! In fact, “yattai gourmet” is an essential part of festival culture. Venues are lined with vendors offering a vast array of snacks, from traditional Japanese festival foods like takoyaki and yakisoba to fun sweets like chocolate bananas.
The combination of delicious street food and traditional celebrations creates a unique cultural experience that can only be found at a Japanese festival!
We asked the Kansai Catering Association, which supplies yattai food stalls to various festivals and events, to share the history of Japanese festival stalls and describe recent COVID-related countermeasures.
- Table of Contents
- Why are there yattai food stalls at Japanese festivals? Their origin and history
- 9 street foods found at Japanese festivals
- 1. Takoyaki: Very popular for its texture
- 2. Yakisoba: The perfect serving size with an irresistible aroma
- 3. Chocolate banana: Popular for its colorful appearance
- 4. Kakigori: A Japanese summer tradition
- 5. Chicken karaage: Fresh, crispy, and great with beer!
- 6. Candy apple: Addictively sweet and sour
- 7. Cotton candy: Fluffy in texture and appearance
- 8. Baby castella: Just a hint of sweetness
- 9. Grilled corn: A fragrant aroma
- Does it look good on social media? Two trendy street foods
- 1. Italian Spa Bo: Fried pasta that's popular for its moderate saltiness and crisp texture
- 2. Light Bulb Soda: Shiny light bulbs make an impact
- There are also street foods with different names depending on the region and festival!
- 1. Ikayaki: Looks and tastes completely different!
- 2. American dog? French dog? The name depends on the region
- Recent COVID countermeasures and the latest hygiene measures
Why are there yattai food stalls at Japanese festivals? Their origin and history
Beginning in ancient times, the Japanese believed that everything in the universe has an associated deity and have been called “the people of eight million gods” with festivals held across the country to express gratitude to nature and the gods, a tradition that continues today.
Before becoming a standard part of any festival, Japanese food “stalls” began popping up around the country in 1715 as small vending stands on roads and in public spaces to fill the stomachs of carpenters and other craftsmen of that era.
Modern yattai food stalls trace their origin to post-World War II black markets found in urban centers. At that time, the black market sold daily necessities and groceries illegally and at significantly higher prices than usual.
Since then, strict standards have been established, and temporary business permits are issued for stalls set up at traditional festivals and regional events.
It is said the reason there are many yattai food stalls at festivals is that gods love lively places where people gather, so the more food shops and points of interest at a festival, the more people will attend.
The stalls have also gained popularity with non-Japanese residents and tourists because they provide a mood and foods unique to Japan.
9 street foods found at Japanese festivals
The sheer number and variety of festival stalls can come as a surprise, and many events offer unique foods that add to the atmosphere. Here we’ll introduce some delicious standards you’ll definitely want to try.
Of course, measures have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the use of protective plastic partitions and thorough disinfection of the stalls. Additional measures may be taken depending on the type of food served.
1. Takoyaki: Very popular for its texture
Takoyaki is made by mixing spices, green onions, and diced octopus in flour dough and then grilling these in bite-size 3 to 5 cm balls. Takoyaki balls are packed in plastic folding lid trays and served with a toothpick.
Takoyaki originated in Osaka and is a standard festival food, popular because it’s easy to eat and share. In recent years, takoyaki has gained added favor as a food often liked by non-Japanese festival-goers, but be careful when eating it – fresh takoyaki can burn your tongue.
It depends on the individual stall, but many takoyaki vendors have begun wearing masks and face shields and using disinfected gloves as COVID countermeasures.
2. Yakisoba: The perfect serving size with an irresistible aroma
Yakisoba consists of stir-fried noodles, meat (usually pork), and vegetables seasoned with Worcestershire-based yakisoba sauce. Food stall chefs skillfully prepare yakisoba on huge iron grills, and attract many customers with the aroma of the sauce alone.
Yakisoba is always served in hearty portions, but the ingredients vary by stall with some noodles seasoned with salt instead of sauce so that you can choose according to your taste.
Many yakisoba stall operators now wear alcohol-disinfected gloves, masks, and face shields as an anti-COVID measure.
3. Chocolate banana: Popular for its colorful appearance
Of course, Japanese street food includes dozens of kinds of sweets, but one standard is the chocolate banana. This dessert features a banana generously coated in chocolate and decorated with colorful sprinkles. Aside from being delicious, it’s an easy treat to eat while walking around the festival, adding to its appeal.
In response to COVID-19, many choco-banana stalls have begun to sell their bananas individually wrapped in protective bags.
4. Kakigori: A Japanese summer tradition
Kakigori, an iconic Japanese “cold sweet,” is so popular that it is even sold in specialty shops. The kakigori served at festival stalls uses naturally produced ice and continually evolves as vendors devise new syrup flavors. In addition to fruit flavors like strawberry or melon, there are also uniquely Japanese flavors like matcha green tea. Kakigori is another perfect eat-while-you-walk treat.
5. Chicken karaage: Fresh, crispy, and great with beer!
Chicken Karaage is super-popular at any festival. It’s often eaten at home too, but food stall karaage is topped with bold seasonings, salty sauce, or pepper.
Festivals include a ceremony to offer sake to the gods, and since many people enjoy sake, the seasonings are designed to pair well with sake. Skewered fried chicken is often served in paper cups so it can be easily eaten while walking and the taste and style of karaage may differ by region and stall.
Although it also depends on the individual vendor, recent health and safety measures include disinfecting gloves with alcohol and the wearing of masks and face shields while cooking.
6. Candy apple: Addictively sweet and sour
Candy apples are made by coating apples in syrup or candy glaze and putting them on sticks to make them easy to hold. This traditional festival confection embodies the harmony of sweet candy and syrup and apples' refreshing flavor and texture.
Their delightful look and color are especially popular with children. In addition to apples, there are variations made with strawberries, apricots, and grapes.
For the sake of hygiene, candy apples and other candied fruits are often individually sold in bags.
7. Cotton candy: Fluffy in texture and appearance
Cloud-like, melt-in-your-mouth cotton candy is another typical festival food and, in Japan, is usually white or light pink. It’s made by melting sugar into thin threads which are swirled into a sweet, cottony mass. Recently, cotton candy has evolved in taste and appearance, with rainbow-colored and artificially shiny varieties appearing at festivals.
As a countermeasure against COVID-19, some yattai food stalls are now selling bagged cotton candy.
8. Baby castella: Just a hint of sweetness
Baby castella, which tastes like pancakes, is a popular snack not only at festivals but also at tourist destinations around Tokyo and Asakusa. With a simple honey and sugar sweetness, bite-sized baby castella is a perfect snack that’s easy to eat and share while walking and is often made in the shape of popular anime characters with special molds.
In the past, vendors used to grab the castella directly to put them in a bag, but with increased concern for hygiene, many stalls now use scoops.
9. Grilled corn: A fragrant aroma
Because corn is in season, grilled corn stalls are frequently found at summer festivals. Juicy corn is salted and seasoned with soy sauce, giving it a good aroma and a sweet, salty flavor. Festival-goers walking and eating hot ears of corn is a common sight.
Many food stall operators use gloves disinfected with alcohol and wear masks and face shields while grilling. As an additional COVID countermeasure, corn is sold individually wrapped.
Does it look good on social media? Two trendy street foods
Thus far, we’ve presented standard festival foods. But other unique and trendy foods embody the ever-evolving food stall culture. Many items have a particular appearance, from “Italian Spa Bo” to glowing drinks you’d expect to see in a moderately fashionable bar.
1. Italian Spa Bo: Fried pasta that's popular for its moderate saltiness and crisp texture
“Italian Spa Bo” (fried pasta) consists of long, crunchy spaghetti noodles that have been fried and seasoned. Seen at festival stalls around the country, they’re easy to eat while walking and their salty taste goes perfectly with alcohol.
2. Light Bulb Soda: Shiny light bulbs make an impact
“Light Bulb Soda” refers to colorful drinks served in light bulb-shaped containers. Originating in South Korea and now sold at yattai food stalls, their eye-catching appearance has made them very popular with young Japanese people. Even after finishing the drink, the container is fun to decorate and use for holding other things, which is a great way to avoid needless waste.
There are also street foods with different names depending on the region and festival!
There are countless festivals all over Japan, so, naturally, there are regional differences in street food. Here are some foods that, by region, are the same food with a different name, or, conversely, the same name for different foods.
1. Ikayaki: Looks and tastes completely different!
Ikayaki is a beloved street food across Japan. In the Kanto region, it’s a piece of grilled squid with a savory soy sauce aroma. The Kansai version still has squid in it, but is similar to okonomiyaki.
2. American dog? French dog? The name depends on the region
“American dogs,” which are sausages that are skewered, battered, and fried in oil (i.e., corn dogs), are sprinkled with sugar and called “French dogs” in eastern Hokkaido. In western Kansai, “hashimaki” is often served up at food stalls. This thin okonomiyaki is wrapped around chopsticks to make it easier to eat.
Recent COVID countermeasures and the latest hygiene measures
Although it depends on the festival, in recent years changes have been made in order for all attendees to enjoy the event with peace of mind.
COVID-19 countermeasures include disinfectant sprays stationed at various places around the venue, masks are worn by staff members, and festival-goers are requested to wear masks. Other hygiene measures include fitting refrigeration or freezing appliances with thermometers and equipping workers’ handwashing facilities with added disinfection capabilities.
One of the best parts of a festival is enjoying various street foods that are typical of Japan. The standard dishes are well-prepared and new ones are added every year. The next time you’re at a Japanese festival, take your time walking around the venue and find your new favorite festival food!
Kansai Catering Association
Text by: Efeel Co., Ltd.
*The information in this article is accurate as of August 2021. Please check official websites for the latest information.
English translation by Gabriel Wilkinson
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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